Free theater? Who could possibly think such a wild idea had any chance of succeeding? Well, Brian Sivesind did and it worked. On Sunday evening The Empty Space will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a banquet at Stockdale Country Club.
A decade ago, Sivesind and a group of equally idealistic lovers of live theater launched The Empty Space in a retail space at the rear of a building in a less-than-glamorous strip mall on Oak Street.
No tickets to bother with. All you had to do was walk in and take a seat. Of course, donations were welcome -- still are for that matter.
Looking back, Sivesind says he had no specific expectations when The Empty Space first opened, only that he wanted to create a venue where people could create theater and others could see shows without emptying their wallet.
"As far as 'free' theater, I have to admit that part of the concept of free theater was an advertising campaign," he said. "Like our name, the idea comes from Peter Brook's book 'The Empty Space.'"
As for statistics, he estimates the theater has mounted more than 100 shows since it opened, with nearly 1,000 actors, technicians and artists lending a hand along the way.
A few years after the theater was up and running, Sivesind left town to pursue his master of fine arts degree at UC Irvine. He left things in the capable hands of others. Upon returning, he spent a few years at Spotlight Theatre. Then, in August 2011, he came back to The Empty Space as executive director.
On the whole, the venture has been successful, although Sivesind said there were times in the mid-2000s after the organization gained its nonprofit status, that "money was incredibly hard to come by."
"We discussed many times closing it down, and I offered to come back and be the one to make the decision. Somehow, under the stewardship of Guinevere and James Dethlefson and the artistic leadership of Bob Kempf, they were able to push through. Jeremiah Heitman and Jason Monroe also served as executive directors, keeping the place plugging along. Kristina Saldana has been wonderful at holding the purse strings and making sure we could pay the bills over the last few years."
Since Sivesind returned as executive director, there have been improvements to the theater interior and there are plans for even more improvements in the next few years.
"Jesus Fidel and Michelle Guerrero have done a fantastic job with the lobby," he said, "and will continue that effort from now until Jan. 24 when 'Spring Awakening' opens."
All of this takes money, of course, and Sivesind seems to have a firm grip on the budget and a clear idea of what all the renovations will cost.
"While we are in strong financial shape, we still have annual expenses of around $75,000 -- and none of that goes to the people, who all volunteer their time. We are trying to put about $5,000 into a remodel of the theater space to make it more inviting for patrons."
He hopes to raise that amount within the year. It will be used to upgrade the lighting and sound systems.
"Of course," he added, "one of the best things we've done is improve our air conditioning, thanks to the generous support of Mayor Harvey Hall."
Many of the changes are due to suggestions from theatergoers. Each patron receives a comment card before every show, and the director says he pays close attention to what they say.
"We want input so we can get better," he said. "Not everyone will agree, but we do want to know what our patrons think of us. Most of the input is positive, overwhelmingly so, but the few negative comments we get really challenge us to improve all aspects of the business. It forces us to hold ourselves accountable, and I love that."
As for the next 10 years, Sivesind anticipates that the theater will continue to do a mix of Shakespeare, musicals, modern and classical plays.
The Empty Space also will continue to have "pitch days," where members of the theater community and patrons can pitch ideas for shows they want to produce or see produced. He also has plans that will benefit today's students and the possibility of a change in venue.
"I see us reaching out more to the schools so we can inspire a new generation of theater artists," he said. "If the next four years go extremely well, I see us possibly moving to a newer venue, perhaps in the downtown area, that is more accessible for the community. It's definitely on our radar, but we've got four more years on our lease and we want to focus on that for now. In a couple of years, we will start discussing a move."
Sivesind also sees the importance of keeping the energy and the enthusiasm going, inside as well as outside of the theater.
"There was a buzz those first couple years, and as we lost our newness, it became harder to get people excited about the theater," he said.
"I'd venture to say that nine out of 10 people in Bakersfield still have no idea we even exist. Luckily, those one in 10s are keeping us alive."